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More Training Info > Proper Upper Body Warm up, Part 1

Proper Upper Body Warm up
By C. W. Schurman, CSCS

Are you stretching before you go for a run? Do you include any warmup sets before starting your strength program? When you go hiking do you simply strap on your pack and head into the hills?

As we age, our bodies take on more and more stresses caused by accumulated bad habits. We grow more sedentary as a population, and spend less and less time stretching as we get increasingly busy. Now is the time to spend more attention to what our specific bodies need; some of you may need more focus on warming up tight hip joints; others of you may need to properly prepare aching shoulders for a strength workout; still other readers may simply need several warmup exercises at reduced loads.

This series of articles includes ideas on how to properly prepare the body for anything from a better golf game, to a day of gardening, to a strength workout, to a hard all-day multi-pitch climb. In this first article, we focus on a proper warmup for upper body conditioning, including the chest, shoulders, and back muscles.

General Warm-up: A Brief History

I remember back in the 80’s the general recommendation was to do a few static (held) stretches for the calves, hamstrings and quads before going outside to run a few miles.

For years after that, fitness trainers improved somewhat on that recommendation, suggesting that the better way to prepare was to do some sort of general overall cardiovascular conditioning – whether that means walking, jogging, biking, or using an aerobic machine – for several minutes to increase core temperature and help you mentally prepare for the workout ahead.

A third, more recent camp suggests that you warm up, stop and do a few static stretches, then hit your stride for the rest of the workout and cool down with a few more static stretches at the end. With all of this conflicting information, what really IS the BEST, safest, and most effective way to get the body ready for a workout?

Dynamic Stretching

Studies indicate that stretching done before a workout should incorporate dynamic stretches geared toward simultaneously warming up the body and increasing range of motion. Since statically held stretches done before strength training can actually prevent maximal firing of the muscles, wait to do any static or active stretches until the end of your workouts.

Dynamic stretches start out with small movements and as the muscles warm up and stretch, ever increasing range of motion through a joint. If you are preparing for an upper body strength routine or a day at the crags, consider a) any history of upper body injuries, particularly in the rotator cuff or shoulder complex; b) all the particular muscle groups you will be working during the session; and c) how you feel on any given day. If, for example, it is the middle of winter, you may feel like you need a few extra warm-up sets or exercises to increase joint temperature. If you are feeling particularly stiff, you may need to add a few more dynamic stretches before you get to your warm-up sets for pull-ups or bench presses.

Sample Upper Body Warmup Exercises

Start with 2-3 minutes of a general cardio warmup or range-of-motion calisthenic-type exercises such as tiptoe walking lunges, overhead squats holding a dowel, torso twists, or even the old stand-by for the entire body, jumping jacks. Then you can safely shift into dynamic upper body stretches such as arm circles, arm swings, band traction, pendulums, or letter draws. Each of these dynamic warmups is described below.


Lift both arms straight out to your sides, holding them parallel to the ground. Make small backward circles, rotating through the shoulder joint, gradually increasing the circumference of the circle until your arms are rotating in giant circles that reach above the head and down to the thighs. Complete 30 seconds of easy backward circles and then reverse directions and perform 30 seconds going forward in ever increasing sizes of cicles.


Stand with feet hips’ distance apart and gently wrap your arms around your body as though to give yourself a big hug. Gently release and open the arms back as though to embrace someone else in a hug. As you continue with this opening and closing arm stretch, try to go a little deeper with each movement. Complete 30-45 seconds of self-hugs and other-hugs until you feel a lengthening and warming sensation through the back and chest muscles.


Following arm circles and swings, you should have decent warmth throughout the whole upper body. Now move to your surgical tubing, Jump Stretch or other exercise band attached to a bench, squat rack, or other sturdy surface. Wrap your Right hand around the band and then lean back against the resistance, stepping into it with your right foot to stretch the right rhomboids and lats. Keep the arm straight and gently but consistently move into the band, finding those points of tightness and listening to your body carefully to go where you feel it the most. Do not do this exercise to the point of pain; it should always feel good. Then turn and face the other direction, leaning into your left foot, and feel the stretch through the right pectorals and deltoids. Spend 1-2 minutes with one hand, then switch and repeat both directions for the other.


As a weighted dynamic stretch exercise, grab a light dumbbell (anywhere from 3-15 pounds) and support yourself in a bent-over position with back flat, hand on thigh or bench, and legs wide for a good base of support. Keeping the movement gentle, slowly swing the weighted arm in a small and ever increasing circle, going both clockwise and counter clockwise. Complete 12-15 repetitions each direction, each arm. Repeat a second set with slightly more weight if desired.


Position yourself sitting and facing into an adjustable bench set at a 30 degree incline angle with arms hanging down toward the floor. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand. With arms straight but not locked out, create the letter “T” with your arms raising out to the sides, in a reverse flye position, for a set of 4-5 repetitions. Immediately lift the weights into a “Y” with the hands raising up and away from midline, and perform 4-5 repetitions. Bend the arms at a right angle and perform an “L” raise (or “W” if you need to keep the elbows positioned closer to the trunk than 90 degrees) and do 4-5 repetitions. The last position is a straight “I” down and back behind you to hit rear deltoids and triceps for the final 4-5 repetitions. Rest following all 4 sets (i.e. 16-20 repetitions) for about one minute and repeat again if desired.

Proper Gradual Overload

Following your general warmup and several minutes of dynamic stretching, you’re ready to start your workout. But the warmup is not done yet! If you think you are fully prepared now to jump into a higher intensity upper body strength workout that calls for something like 5 sets of 6 repetitions, or even harder, 8 sets of 3 repetitions, think again!

With that sort of loading, we recommend you choose a weight for at least the first 1-2 exercises that is roughly 50% of your target work load and do a set with that weight for anywhere from 3-5 repetitions. Rest briefly and then add until your weight is about 75% of your targeted first work set, then do another 2-3 repetitions.

Such a gradual overload will do wonders for getting every contributing muscle group ready, as well as pinpoint to you whether something feels “off” and you should back off the intensity or choose another exercise for the day.

Sample Warmup Protocol

If your first two exercises in a strength program will be Bench Press and Pullups for 5 sets of 6 repetitions each, and you plan to do 150 pounds as your first bench press work set and body weight plus 25 pounds for your first pull-up set, then your warmup might look like this:

2 minutes rowing machine
Arm Circles (1 min.)
Arm Swings (30 sec.)
Traction (2 min.)
Pendulums 2 sets 15 repetitions each arm, each direction (1:30 min.)
1 series Letter Draw (1 min)
Bench Press set 1: 5 repetitions 75#
Pullups set 1: 5 repetitions bodyweight
Bench press set 2: 3 repetitions 125#
Pullups set 2: 3 repetitions 15# (2 min.)

Total Targeted Warm-up Time – 10 minutes

FIRST TARGET SET per pair of exercises – and if you are timing your strength workouts for overloading purposes, you would start the clock here, and time the workout from your first heavy set to the last. Such a warmup protocol will have you, your joints, your mind and your muscles far more prepared for your strength workout, at roughly the same time commitment, as the old 10 minute treadmill warmup ever did. Happy training!

See also Proper Lower Body Warmup


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